Reading Archives

With this blog, I am planning to offer, as regularly as possible, critical observations on the scholarly and popular literature analyzing the nature of archives or contributing to our understanding of archives in society. I hope this blog will be of assistance to anyone, especially faculty and graduate students, interested in understanding archives and their importance to society.

Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Jefferson as Architect

From time to time, I have lamented that you cannot find popular accounts of archives and archivists in your typical bookstore, while descriptions of museums and libraries and the professionals staffing them seem to abound. However, there is a small growing body of publications featuring facsimiles of archival documents and commentaries on their value with a broad target audience in mind.

Chuck Wills, Thomas Jefferson Architect: The Interactive Portfolio (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2008) is the most recent example of such a publication. Beautifully illustrated with modern and vintage images of Jefferson’s architecture and architectural influences and including many facsimiles of gardening notes, architectural sketches, and letters (with transcriptions provided in an appendix), Wills’s book enables the reader to gain a feel for historical documentation.

The readers of this publication also learn a little about how archival sources were created and the role they play in understanding the past. Wills notes that Jefferson’s prowess as an architect became known when Sidney Fiske Kimball and his wife, Marie Goebel Kimball, discovered a set of Jefferson architectural records at the Massachusetts Historical Society and Fiske Kimball subsequently published a book about this in 1916. Wills also comments on the very detailed architectural drawings Jefferson created and maintained. “This reflected another dimension of his personality; in modern terms, Jefferson was obsessive-compulsive,” Wills surmises. “From youth until old age he obsessively recorded in writing everything from crop yields to the daily weather to the contents of his library, wine cellar, and everything in between” (p. 25).

This same publisher also produced Margo Stipe, Frank Lloyd Wright: The Interactive Portfolio; Rare Removable Treasures, Hand-Drawn Sketches, Original Letters, and More from the Official Archives (Philadelphia: Running Press, 2004), described in this blog on February 5, 2007; both are worth being in any archivist’s library.